Review Detail

Middle Grade Fiction 116
A Long Goodbye to a Friend
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Sophia Winslow lives on a street of older homes in New Hampshire, and her busy parents operate a real estate company out of their breezeway. Her good friend Ralphie Mariani lives across the street with his five brothers and sisters, his doctor father and mother who is a really good cook, and Oliver Vorhees, who is slightly younger, lives down the street with his hardworking single mother. Next door to Sophia is her best friend, 88-year-old Sophie Gershowitz, who came to the US from Poland after World War II and has lived in her house for 68 years. When Sophia overhears that Sophie's son Aaron is coming for a visit and plans to have his mother underrgo cognitive testing because she's slipping more and more, Sophia knows she must spring into action before her best friend is spirited away to live in an old folks' home in Akron, Ohio. She borrows a Merck manual from Ralphie and tries to give Sophia her own version of cognitive tests. It's clear from other occurrences that Sophie is having some problems; she leaves a tea kettle on the stove, and it burns, and when she and Sophia drive to WalMart to get a new one, they get lost coming back. While Sophie has great long term memories and can tell Sophia things that happened in 1961, she can't pass a three word retention test, no matter what Sophia does. Hoping that practice will help, Sophia tries again and again. During one of these sessions, she gives her friend three words; tree, table, and book. These three words spark deep memories of Sophie's life in Poland as a child, and she relates three stories that she hasn't told anyone, not even her son. Sophia feels that someone who has suffered so much shouldn't have to leave her best friend and go into "an old people institution", and she thinks vaguely about setting Sophie up in the abandoned house that's for sale across the street, but when she, Ralphie, and Oliver sneak in to check it out, Oliver, whose description seems to place him on the autism spectrum, opines that trying to do this would not constitute TLC (tender loving care). As sad as she is to lose her friend, Sophia knows that this is true, and prepares to say goodbye to Sophie as her son and parents work to clean out the house and put it on the market. At least Sophia's parents allow her to have a cell phone so that she can talk to her friend once a week for as long as it is possible.
Good Points
There's no good way to adequately describe this book; it's a simple story, but in Lowry's hands turns into something profound and heartwrenching. Having seen my mother struggle with Parkinson's dementia and watched my father painfully try to "make her better" by quizzing her on the date and various other things, I could definitely understand Sophia's pain. I was also glad that Sophia's son was able to step in, get her tested, and take her to be near him in a setting that would keep her safe, and that while Sophie didn't like it, she, too, saw the necessity of the move. The stories, which I won't even synopsize because I can't do them justice, were poignant and telling, and I almost wish we had heard more about Sophia's time in Poland, or her life in the US as a young mother. Somehow the saddest part of the book, for me, was the description of Sophia's house and furnishings, including her worn out Formica table. Time runs roughshod over everything, doesn't it?

We are getting to a point in time where grandparents who survived the Holocaust are increasingly rare, so it's interesting to see the elder Sophie sharing her story with the younger generation. This book will go along well with titles like Isler's The Color of Sound, Sternberg's Summer of Stolen Secrets, Walters and Kacer's Broken Strings, and Carelli's Skylark and Wallcreeper.

Middle school is definitely a time when many students have to deal with the decline of their grandparents, and this is an accessible look at how this might unfold. This hit painfully close to home, as I have many friends and relatives in their 80s, and Lowry is herself 86, with an almost fifty year career of writing intriguing books for young readers.
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